Louisville and UCF both took part in blowouts in their season openers. One, however, delivered one while the other took one.
Against FCS foe South Carolina State, the Knights cruised to a 56-10 victory. Louisville, on the other hand, opened ACC play with a 31-7 trouncing at the hand of Syracuse. The teams will meet on Friday night at the Bounce House in Orlando.
When the teams met last season in Louisville, things couldn't have ended worse for the Knights. With just 13 seconds left, Jaylin Alderman returned an interception 66 yards to give the Cardinals a thrilling 42-35 victory. On the game's final snap, UCF lost quarterback Dillon Gabriel for the season. He's since transferred to Oklahoma.
Former foes in the American Athletic Conference, the teams have met just three times ever, with each prior matchup coming in Louisville. The schools have split the last two meetings, both of which were decided late.
Louisville at UCF
When Louisville Has the Ball
While accounting for 39 total touchdowns and 1,031 rushing yards in 2021, Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham quietly had one of the better seasons in the ACC. A big reason for his emergence was the fact that he was able to largely eliminate mistakes. Against UCF, Cunningham accounted for 364 yards and three total touchdowns last season. His 2022 campaign, however, got off to a rocky start as he finished with just 152 passing yards, 34 rushing yards, and three total turnovers in the loss to Syracuse.
Overall, not much went right for the Cardinals in the opener. Running back Tiyon Evans and wide receiver Tyler Hudson were among the bright spots in the loss. Evans finished with 89 rushing yards and Louisville's only touchdown on 13 carries. Hudson caught eight passes for a game-high 102 yards. Tight end Marshon Ford, last season's leading receiver, was held to just two catches for 12 yards in the loss. Running back Jalen Mitchell and wide receivers Braden Smith and Ahmari Huggins-Bruce were also quiet but will be expected to produce as the season goes along. The Cardinals finished with 501 yards against UCF last season. Among ACC teams in Week 1 of the 2022 season, only Boston College and Georgia Tech had fewer yards than Louisville.
Defensively, UCF was in the middle of the pack in most defensive categories nationally last season. In their opener against FCS South Carolina State, the Knights yielded just 91 total yards. The losses to leading tackler Tatum Bethune and leading sack man Big Kat Bryant are significant, but UCF still has talent on the defensive side of the ball. Tre'mon Morris-Brash and Ricky Barber headline the defensive front for the Knights. Morris-Brash actually had an interception in last season's loss at Louisville.
At linebacker, Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste is the player to watch for UCF. The secondary, however, may be where UCF is best in 2022. Safety Quadric Bullard, the team's leading returning tackler, led the Knights with nine total tackles in last season's meeting. Cornerback Davonte Brown and safety Divaad Wilson should be two of the conference's best. Both of UCF's sacks in Week 1 came from the secondary. The Knights have been one of the best teams in the country in taking the ball away over the last few years. Since 2016, UCF hasn't finished lower than 36th in the country in total takeaways and has ranked in the top 10 three times.
When UCF Has the Ball
Gabriel may be off to Norman, but UCF has one of the most athletic quarterbacks it has in a long time. John Rhys Plumlee was once a highly touted prospect, but he spent the majority of his time at Ole Miss out wide at receiver. In his UCF debut, Plumlee did not disappoint, as he finished with 394 yards of total offense and five total touchdowns. In the backfield, Isaiah Bowser and Johnny Richardson form a thunder-and-lightning combination alongside Plumlee. Richardson finished with 101 rushing yards on just nine carries for UCF in last season's loss to Louisville. In the opener, the Knights finished with nearly 300 yards rushing on six yards per carry.
At wide receiver, Ryan O'Keefe returns after leading the Knights with 84 catches for 812 yards last season, but the top two receivers in the opener were a pair of SEC transfers. Javon Baker, an Alabama transfer, and Kemore Gamble, a Florida transfer, each finished with more than 80 yards receiving and a touchdown in the victory over South Carolina State. UCF is very experienced up front with center Matt Lee headlining the unit. The loss to Gabriel hampered UCF last season, but prior to that, the Knights had ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring five years in a row.
Louisville ranked eighth in the ACC in total and scoring defense last season but could not stop the Syracuse attack in the opener. The Cardinals yielded nearly seven yards per play against the Orange. Yasir Abdullah headlines the pass rush for Louisville after ranking second in the ACC in sacks last season with 10. After a promising freshman year, Ashton Gillotte opened the season with a pair of sacks against Syracuse. The Cardinals are also happy to have Monty Montgomery back. Montgomery led Louisville with nine tackles against UCF last season. Like Gabriel, it was his final game before suffering a season-ending injury.
Cornerback Kei'Trel Clark headlines a secondary that has potential. Kenderick Duncan is a tackling machine at safety. Overall, however, the Cardinals are very young in the secondary. They brought in Florida State transfer Jarvis Brownlee, who had an up-and-down 2021, to add experience. Although he regressed last season, James Turner is a very capable kicker for the Cardinals. Special teams could be an area where Louisville has a major advantage. The Knights have been good in the return game, but have struggled with field goal kicking. For his career, UCF kicker Daniel Obarski is just 1-for-8 from 40 yards and beyond.
Considering the opponent, it's hard to take too much away from UCF's season-opening performance. What we do know is that Plumlee is an excellent athlete behind center. That was also the case with Syracuse's Garrett Shrader, who beat the Cardinals with his arm and legs in Week 1. Louisville hopes its Week 1 performance was simply an aberration, but for things to get better in Week 2, Cunningham is going to have to perform much better and get some help from his teammates. UCF has a stable of backs that can wear Louisville down. Last season's contest featured 77 points, and this one should have plenty as well. Traveling from Upstate New York back to Kentucky to Orlando on a short week won't be easy for the Cardinals.
Prediction: UCF 36, Louisville 24
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.
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